Earlier this year I read and reviewed D.J. Mulloy’s The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014) for the American Studies Journal. The review will appear in AMSJ’s winter 2015 issue (Vol. 54, No. 4). Because the initial draft far exceeded (i.e. more than doubled) my allowed word limit for the review, I thought I’d bring some of that excess here—for reflection and discussion.
The John Birch Society has arisen, as a conversation topic, many times here at the blog. I brought it up in a critique of George Nash’s Conservative Intellectual in America: Since 1945 (which engendered a spirited comments section). I also mentioned JBS earlier this year, with a preliminary comment on Mulloy’s work:
That world [of JBS], which Mulloy covers during the 1950s and 1960s, was dominated by a paranoid, suspicious, and conspiratorial sensibility that melded emotion and reason (unhealthily, I believe). No one was ever anti-communist enough. Pink and red-tinted glasses colored their worldview. Their shrillness, on that topic in particular, can be fairly compared with today’s most radical Tea Party adherents, who see everything as diabolically connected to a sinister Obama “plan” (e.g. the Twitter hashtag #thanksObama began, I think, by capturing some of that crowd but now makes fun of it). But I wouldn’t hazard an argument that the darker #thanksObama crowd is quantitatively worse or more prevalent or perverse than any hypothetical “#thanksEisenhower” crowd might have been. (The JBS began by arguing about Dwight’s brother Milton, but eventually argued, famously, that Dwight was also weak on communism.)
I wrote that in the midst of my reading, desiring to get the word out on the book and Mulloy’s work. Now to my review, but first a note: This experiment with “review leavings” is new to me, so I apologize for any awkwardness in what follows. Obviously this isn’t a full review, and therefore doesn’t fully cover the book’s topics.
Here’s the first
lame draft of my review’s thesis (spruced up considerably for AMSJ): In The World of the John Birch Society, D.J. Mulloy makes a convincing case for viewing the John Birch Society as a group that was, paradoxically, both mainstream and ultra-right wing. Their conspiratorial sensibility was, Mulloy argues, less a social aberration than many historians today realize. I added this for emphasis: If there is another study that more thoroughly underscores the historical continuity of past and present far right-wing ideology in America’s society and politics, I have not seen it. I can still go with that.
There was no room in the review to discuss Mulloy’s background, but few are more qualified to analyze the JBS story. This book fits into Mulloy’s general research agenda on political extremism and “ultra groups” in the United States. That agenda includes a special interest in the relationship between political rhetoric and intellectual history. He has published two other works on post-1945 American militia groups and their politics, Homegrown Revolutionaries: An American Militia Reader (University of East Anglia Press, 1999) and American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement (Routledge, 2004). A work on JBS is clearly a natural extension of Mulloy’s interests.
I wanted to recount Welch’s most prominent publication to help contextualize JBS’s formation and early popularity, as well as to establish a deeper continuity with the present. For, in the Society’s foundational text, Robert Welch’s Blue Book (1961), he argued that the “increasing quantity of government…has constituted the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.” He added that the “greatest enemy of man is, and always has been, government”—”the larger…that government, the greater the enemy” (p. 11). To Welch and Birchers, individual responsibility and freedom constituted real conservatism and Americanism. This part of their ideological program allowed conservative politicians such as Barry Goldwater and conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley to associate, for a time, with the Society (Goldwater and Buckley are covered in chapter three). Bircher resistance to the Civil Rights Movement could also be linked to their belief in the dangers of excessive government, and consequent support for states’ rights (p. 108). Even while Republican Party leaders rejected connections to the Society after 1964, the group remained relevant for many years after because their anti-statist ideology. Indeed, it is this aspect of the Mulloy’s work that speaks to the present-day extremism, demonstrating the persistence of ultra-style thinking and action in American political culture.
Given my professional interest in the history of education, I was struck by Welch’s view of JBS as an “educational organization.” The Birchers, Mulloy argues, maintained a “faith in the persuasive power of all things textual” (p. 127). The Society dispensed knowledge about the internal communist threat through a speakers bureau, reading rooms, and publications (periodicals, new and reprinted books). Welch’s “bibliophilic tendencies” led to creation of over 400 American Opinion libraries, a publishing division (Western Islands), and two magazines (a weekly, Review of the News, and a monthly, American Opinion) with a total circulation of approximately 50,000 (p. 181, 187, 193n33). The Birchers also operated a weekly radio program, called Are You Listening, Uncle Sam?, broadcast on more than one hundred stations (p. 187).
This led me to some criticism of Mulloy’s book. Given these numbers, and if Welch’s self-assessment of JBS is right (and I think Mulloy concurs), then the organization ought to be analyzed as an educational institution. But it wasn’t. What of its teaching techniques? How did its leaders adjust its messages for different audiences? How did it target adult learners? Or children? How did the organization recruit, rate, and reward its instructors? How were citizen students recruited and retained? What of the economics of the publishing house? Who controlled editing, peer review, and “fact-checking”? Did other bookstores carry JBS-Western Island titles?
If a group wants to set up an alternate worldview or sensibility, then it must (or will naturally) seek converts. Converts are made by education. Mass numbers of converts can only be quickly and efficiently made by educational institutions. Those structures will be mimetic, since teaching techniques will be similar (for the sake of efficiency, hence the faith in texts and lectures).
Once the door of criticism was opened, other topics arose. There were, to me, many other interesting and significant questions that Mulloy either could not address or chose not to answer. What of JBS as a cult? Given its quiet nature, hierarchical structure, and Welch’s eventual devolution into Adam Weishaupt’s Illuminati conspiracy theory, the Birchers almost beg for analyses as a religious entity (p. 182-85). The reader is left to wonder how other 1960s thinkers countered the false beliefs of Birchers. What legal, rational, and socially acceptable means of resistance were used to push back against the group’s fantastical beliefs and “educational literature”? And if Birchers were seen as potentially dangerous and organized resistance was rare, why was that so?
These critical questions did not diminish my enthusiasm for Mulloy’s book. Indeed, his narration the background he brought to the topic enabled my musings. Finally, for the present, if those repulsed by far-right rhetoric and thinking might obtain some sense of historical understanding on the topic, perhaps better coping mechanisms might emerge. If concerns are engaged (if not fully shared), perhaps shared solutions might result.